Labor’s Lost Love

Jonathan Tasini, president emeritus of the National Writers Union, is president of the Economic Future Group.

Over the last 20 years, the labor movement has poured billions of our members’ hard-earned dollars into electoral politics -- and we’ve gotten very little to show for it except a weaker labor movement, too many election day whuppings and too many politicians who, when they do win, promptly turn their backs on working men and women. It’s time we turned off the spigot and put the money to better use.

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that between 1979 and 2004, unions gave about $500 million in direct contributions to candidates for federal office. From 1998 to 2004, unions lavished about $600 million on political parties. And unions paid $100 million to 527s (independent political action committees) in 2004. That’s $1.2 billion in cash -- not counting money spent on the parties from 1980 to 1998 and labor’s own effort to get its members out to vote. A few union political experts tell me unions spend seven to 10 times what they give candidates and parties on internal political mobilization. So we’re talking $8 billion to as much as $12 billion on federal elections alone.

What have we gotten for that? For the last 25 years, employers have broken labor laws with impunity and fired tens of thousands of workers trying to organize. By every measure, life for most workers has become more difficult. Few politicians challenge the right of corporations to run the workplace like a dictatorship. We’ve lived almost entirely under Republican presidents -- the exception being Bill Clinton’s eight years. Even those years hurt us, as Clinton aggressively lobbied for the North American Free Trade Agreement and enthusiastically embraced its dubious premise -- an unmitigated disaster for American and foreign workers. His secretary of Labor was pro-NAFTA, did virtually nothing to push for the real right to organize a union and, instead, advocated a now-discredited liberal, elitist view that we should not worry about the global economy as long as dumb workers retrained themselves.

During the Clinton years, labor could not get a bill passed that would have prevented strikers from being permanently replaced. The reason? The two Democratic senators from Arkansas, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, refused to provide the two votes that would have ended a Republican filibuster. We got exactly what we should have expected -- a few crumbs.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire the fire and dedication of the labor people who pour their souls into campaigns. But we’ve been acting on the belief that the political arena could make up for our declining numbers and weakness in the workplace. Our money and troops have squeezed out a few victories for Democrats. But we’ve remained passengers, not drivers of the political vehicle. Politicians ignore us because we can’t turn out enough voters to end their careers. We couldn’t even muster a meaningful spanking for those NAFTA-backing Democrats.


So my proposal is simple: During the coming two-year election cycle, labor should not write a single check to a federal candidate or a political party. Let’s take the money -- and, more important, our focus and energy -- and pour it into organizing new workers, kicking the stuffing out of the Wal-Mart family, pushing a national campaign for healthcare for all and advancing the labor-environment-sponsored Apollo Alliance, a brilliant idea to pour billions of dollars into good-paying jobs through new sustainable-energy projects. Faced with the specter of a rapacious global economy, people are ready for someone who’ll champion broader, enforceable rights at work.

I can hear the chorus now: We have to support our political “friends” and defeat the Republicans. Get real. Given that virtually every incumbent is reelected in Congress, there is no chance the Democrats will be in a position to retake either the House or Senate in the next cycle -- nor will Democratic incumbents lose. And, if by some miracle the Democrats recapture Congress, the chances are less than zero that they would attain a filibuster-proof margin in the Senate. Serious labor law reform is a pipe dream for a long time to come -- even if we could get full Democratic Party support, which is doubtful.

So, for two years, let’s do something radical: find out which politicians fight for working people without needing to be slipped a check. If we have to start trying to buy votes again, there will be plenty of takers. On the other hand, abstinence might earn us something -- like more members and more respect, which, in the end, is what we need to have real power to shape the political agenda.